This artist's conception of the Diamond synchrotron offers

Image courtesy Diamond Light Source

The Diamond Synchrotron

Also called the Diamond Light Source, the Diamond synchrotron began operating in January 2007. The device produces intensely bright beams of light through the use of a subatomic particle accelerator. The process begins with an electron gun that shoots a beam of electrons down a straight tube, called the linac, which accelerates the electrons before sending them into the circular booster synchrotron. In this circular chamber, the electrons accelerate and acquire energy, eventually reaching an energy level of 3 gigaelectronvolts. They then enter a larger circular chamber where, guided by magnets, they accelerate to nearly the speed of light.

Straight tubes called beamlines extend outward from the accelerator's largest chamber. As the electrons move through the accelerator at high speed, some break off and travel down the beamlines. The light coming through the beamlines can then be used for a variety of purposes, including examining objects on the atomic level.

A scientist working on the project told BBC News that the Diamond synchrotron is particularly useful because it produces light from all ends of the spectrum, microwave to X-ray [source: BBC News]. And the light that's produced is phenomenally bright -- 10 billion times brighter than the sun and 100 billion times brighter than a standard medical X-ray [source: BBC News].

The Diamond synchrotron operates 24 hours a day. Scientists apply for time to use one of the machine's beamlines. The Diamond synchrotron was initially constructed with seven beamlines, though many more could be added. One researcher, expressing great excitement at the opening of the Diamond synchrotron, said that the machine would have wide-ranging effects on British scientific research -- "from oil rigs through to things as important as chocolate" [source: BBC News].

There are several dozen synchrotrons around the world. Like the Diamond synchrotron, they act as incredibly powerful microscopes, yielding new insights into how particles look and behave on the atomic level. And like other synchrotrons, the Diamond synchrotron will be used for more than reading ancient texts. The synchrotron's remarkable imaging capabilities means that it could be used to study everything from viruses to magnets to environmental science to cancer treatments to new data storage media.

For links to information about the world's synchrotrons and to learn more about synchrotrons and other powerful light sources, please check out the links on the next page.